This summer's tour culminated with two weeks in Vermont, for my second appearance at the Bookstock literary festival (along with some of my heros: Ocean Vuong, Carolyn Forché, Ilya Kaminsky, Vievee Francis & Matthew Olzmann, among others) and a reading at the Lamp Shop in Burlington. It was a fitting way to end the worldwind 3 months which took me and my girlfriend, Skye Jackson, through the Southwest of the U.S. and then all the way to Paris and back; Burlington is where I came of age. I had grown up in between a donkey farm and a cow pasture on Route 103 in Rutland County, and by the time I turned 20, the irresistible gravity of the thriving Burlington art scene two hours north had pulled me in, plunging me into one of the most sincerely eccentric, relentlessly creative environments I've ever had the luck to witness.
Recently I came across the feature article I wrote for the Burlington Free Press's cover story about that Old North End scene, while I was artist-in-residence at the BCA Center in 2012, after five years of saturation in Burlington's hedonistic beauty. Re-reading it after so much time has passed has given me some intense nostalgia, both for the O.N.E. and for my first prose byline—since the Freeps isn't hosting older content any longer, I'm posting it here in its entirety, along with a few photos by Maddie McGarvey (even that name is a testament to the astonishing level of talent concentrated in a such a tiny city - within a couple years she'd be one of Magnum Photo's 30 Under 30, and shooting for the NYT and TIME).
“Do You Want a Zucchini?”
by Benjamin Aleshire
(First published in the Burlington Free Press, Dec. 16, 2012)
Recently I was bicycling down North Winooski Avenue, that one-way street which is like a small river, collecting tributaries from around the north side of Burlington, channeling them and depositing them elsewhere along its path. Along the way, I passed a mustachioed painter on a children’s bike, riding the wrong way in the opposite direction, with no brakes—something I still can’t manage to ignore the symbolism of. He was riding one handed, holding a gallon jar of coffee, and in the few seconds we were in earshot, he blurted out an invitation to a barbecue later that night. I showed up on Decatur Street around dinner time; there was no sign of a barbecue, but I did find a few bearded men railing on an old hand-cranked apple cider press, in the darkness, while an acrobat twirled languorously on silks strung up to the ceiling of the garage.
Welcome to the Old North End of Burlington, a neighborhood usually described as diverse (which means people of color live here), gritty (which means low-income, working class people live here) and creative (which means artists, farmers, and activists live here, in addition to the bright college students who have gotten tired of paying $1000 a month to split a dorm room at UVM). That’s a pretty broad generalization, of course, but perhaps a bit more direct than what you might usually encounter. To diverse, gritty and creative, I would venture to add eccentric. For example, when the Free Press sent a photographer to my apartment on Pearl Street, we could see, through the neighbors’ window, a beautiful girl in a bag-lady coat, playing ancient Turkish music on an accordion, while my neighbor waltzed around the kitchen in a plaid suit with his cat.
I moved to the O.N.E. from southern VT several years ago, and as a young person from a rural area, each day brought me new adventures. First of all, I was living in the former walk-in cooler of the Onion City Co-op on Archibald Street, although most people seemed to remember it as a legendary underground punk club. At the first party I was invited to, a group of political activists huddled around a 12-lb block of solid chocolate they had found in a dumpster, and they were marveling over it and hammering off slivers with an ice pick, with great gusto, while discussing Rachel Corey’s murder by bulldozer in Palestine.
One day, I was hanging around the Radio Bean, which is the artistic watering-hole of sorts, and a man dressed in roller skates, a purple sequined cape, and goggles asked me if I wanted to be in his circus band and play at Bonnaroo, then the biggest music festival in the country. I said, Sure, why not, assuming he was on some sort of drug, and promptly forgot about the whole thing. But that man turned out to be Lee Anderson, the Radio Bean’s proprietor: a poet, puppeteer, and general intellectual-blues-shaman. A few days later, I was at a rehearsal in a cave-like art studio on Archibald Street, filled with gigantic papier-mache birds with glowing eyes. Everyone else was uniformly 3 hours late; I came back later, though, and the place was buzzing with activity—my job would be to build a wearable hot dog tuxedo out of cardboard.
That was a few years ago. Since then I’ve discovered many other events and happenings in the O.N.E.: Mustache Balls, Pink & Blue Balls, Solstice Masquerades, Rambles, Wine Parties, Fool’s Gold Art Auctions, Crow Rides, Tweed Rides, Decade Rides, bike rides of all sorts, countless potlucks, innumerable beer tastings. I helped build a bus that runs off of dumpster fry grease, attended some very serious meetings about building a floating bowling alley paradise on Lake Champlain, and sat in with a radical political brass band dressed entirely in red jumpsuits. I’ve seen naughty hand-cranked television shows, more jam sessions and puppetshows than I can count. I’ve been to poetry readings at a house called Aesthesia decorated entirely in Belle Epoque fixtures, with an immense golden harp in the living room and a functional letter-press in the basement. If it’s not the all-day Radio Bean birthday bash, well then, it’s the all-day Junktiques birthday bash a week later. I’ve seen acrobats on floating rafts. I’ve seen a man turn 40 and his friends tie him up, ride him around backwards on a horse puppet, then strip him naked and make him crawl through a fabric birth-canal wrapped around the legs of all his former lovers while they chant mystically until he weeps with joy.
I could go on and on.
But, one summer I had a simple experience that sums up my love for the eccentric flavors of the O.N.E.: I was walking along Manhattan Drive, feeling a bit lonesome, as we all do, sometimes, don’t we? Then a van pulled up alongside me, stereo blaring; it was painted entirely with vegetables, with wooden boxes nailed onto the side, which were overflowing with carrots, tomatoes, onions. The driver bellowed at me, “DO YOU WANT A ZUCCHINI?” and tossed me one before I could answer. Then they pulled away before I could even thank them for giving me something that has nourished me ever since, in more ways than they realize. I can still see them driving away, singing disco, working their way through side streets, looking for someone else’s life to change forever.